opinion Opinion November 12, 2019

The numbers are in: NSW is a live music dead zone [op-ed]

The numbers are in: NSW is a live music dead zone [op-ed]
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Well, the damage has been done. Sydney’s draconian and the subsequent closure of many venues, coupled with the terror and uncertainty of swarms of police patrolling the gates of music festivals, strip-searching young vulnerable women at will and refusing entry for arbitrary reasons to those who paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket – this has all resulted in NSW losing its standing as Australia’s leader. 

In contrast, Victoria had a record year in 2018, in regards to both music ticket revenue and attendance numbers. Queensland’s revenue growth has also risen by 89% between 2015 and 2018. Globally, live music revenue is rising steadily. In NSW, it’s dying rapidly.

“NSW is no longer the premier state for live music, and is rapidly losing ground to Victoria and Queensland for growth in attendance and revenue,” said ’s chief executive, Evelyn Richardson, citing “the consequences of poor regulation and policy.”

These results are quite shocking. In recent months we have seen some positive moves to reinstate some form of sanity. For a while, it seemed like adults may no longer be treated like babies in modern-day NSW. In late September, a parliamentary review recommended the abolishment of the lockout laws in Sydney CBD and Oxford Street, as well as the reintroduction of evils such as doubles, shots served after midnight, and even glasses made of actual glass.

That same week in September saw the Upper House scrap the overreaching festival licensing laws. Alas, within a month, Gladys and co. introduced the Music Festivals Bill, which is basically the exact same laws written in a different font, with the added threat of jail time to those promoters who fail to comply. 

Last Friday, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame, who oversaw the coronial inquest into the deaths of six people who died after taking drugs at various NSW music festivals, told the court there was “no doubt whatsoever that there is sufficient evidence to support a drug-checking trial in NSW.” 

Although a pill-testing tent that operated at Canberra’s Groovin The Moo proved that lives could be saved by drug testing at festivals, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller rejected Grahame’s recommendations, yesterday releasing a statement which read in part: “Pill testing provides a false confidence to an individual that the drug they want to take is safe. There is no such thing. All illegal substances carry the risk of harming, or ultimately killing, the user.” A blanket refusal to deal with the realities of the situation. 

So, it seems that very little will actually change. The lockout laws are still in place too, with no set date to lift them yet.

What has changed is the local live music economy. Put simply, it is in tatters, and it is a direct result of these reactionary laws.

In 2018, across Australia, about ten million tickets were sold for “contemporary music performances”, earning one billion dollars in revenue. These figures discount festivals, which we’ll get to.

Growth in revenue in Victoria was more than double that of NSW. Revenue from live music has growth by 194% since 2015 in Victoria, compared to 12% in NSW.

If you add festivals to the mix, the results get worse for NSW.

NSW’s slow revenue growth pushes against rapid results in both Victoria and Queensland. Between 2015 and 2018, NSW combined revenue for live music and music festivals was 88%. Victoria grew 176% and Queensland grew 110%. Attendance in NSW grew only 55%, compared to Victoria’s 103% and Queensland’s 63%.

“Everyone who has a stake in a strong live music industry needs to be concerned about what’s happening in NSW,” LPA’s Richardson wrote of the findings.

“And when our most populous city and state is underperforming, that can also impact the rest of the Australian market, particularly for international artists,” Ms Richardson said. 

In other words, this is a national crisis. And while the issue may pale in comparison to the current bushfire catastrophes, it has a real-world impact on thousands of small business owners: the touring companies who rely on steady year-on-year growth to build their brands, the many festivals that have shut down since the laws shattered their once-sound business models, the restaurants, cafes and supermarkets that built their income around the once-thriving night economy in Sydney, the numerous live music venues which have shut, the gun-shy promoters who may deem booking an overseas act too much of a financial risk. 

Often, the profits made on a national tour in Sydney will underwrite losses made in Perth, where the logistics costs are high. As we have seen with the spread of violence in various Inner West suburbs of Sydney following the lock outlaws, such ill-thought-out policies have knock-on effects.

With the death of physical sales, most Australian musicians only make money through live performances and the merch they can shill at these gigs. Ticket prices have risen across the board in an effort to counter the huge income loss that streaming has caused, and while it’s not ideal for punters to be paying over a hundred dollars for a single gig, this shifting of economics has at least slowed the demise of the musician as a legitimate day (or night) job in Australia.

Couple this with the broader entertainment climate. At no time in the history of Australia, has live music ever had such fierce competition. The Internet lives in everyone’s pocket, Netflix delivers a boggling array of world-class entertainment to your home for the price of a small monthly subscription fee, and gaming has risen as an unstoppable force. Food can be delivered to your house without having to talk to a person. Conversely, you can socialise, keep up to date with your local community, and bulletin your every thought without leaving your lounge. There are fewer reasons than ever to leave your home to see live music. And now the NSW Government is acting to systematically destroy it, for pure political gain.

So, what’s the fix? I asked Darcy Byrne, the Mayor of the Inner West, and a major advocate of live music. He explained how, while the pending repeal of the lockout laws is an opportunity, it also poses the danger that politicians will be able to “ignore the array of other policy measures the sector has proposed and put music policy on the back burner” if the lifting of the laws is considered an adequate fix.

Byrne outlined some clear actions that must be taken. “Ending the prosecution of live music venues over vexatious noise complaints should be at the top of the list,” he explained. 

“Our Council’s ‘Good Neighbour’ Policy should be mandated for all Councils as well as the liquor regulator and police, requiring mitigation not litigation of noise complaints against pubs, bars and clubs. 

“Legalisation of small scale live performance in industrial, commercial and retail premises would instantly provide a plethora of potential spaces for emerging musicians to play and develop their craft. I’ll be prioritising this pilot in the Inner West but it could work all over NSW.”

Simple changes that will have a drastic impact. Treating live music as an essential cultural experience and a viable slice of our economy, instead of as a problem child that needs to be locked away in a remand centre. 

If the Government continues to blunt the financial incentives that allow live music to exist, while punishing those who attempt to work around non-workable laws, then NSW quickly and perhaps irreversibly slides into a cultural black hole. 

It’s already happening, and it will only get worse over the next decade unless we fix things. 

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